To RAW or not to RAW

In my last post I mentioned that I was going back and forth between shooting in RAW format and regular JPEGs. I’ve read a lot of articles on both sides of the issue. There are some photographers that brush off RAW shooting as only for those that need to constantly correct their pictures in order to get a good image out of it. There are many other (equally as talented) photographers that swear by RAW and never shoot in anything else.

So, what’s the big deal about RAW images that make them so superior? Are they really so much so that they border on cheating? How much CAN you do with a RAW image that you can’t do with a JPEG? Well, first off, my answers all come from a non-Photoshop angle. As much as I would love to be able to have actual Photoshop, the closest I have is ArcSoft PhotoImpression 2000. That’s right a 12 year old, made for Windows 98, Photoshop-esque program. Actually, I LOVE my Photo Impression – so much so that the next editing software I’m getting will be ArcSoft [PhotoStudio, to be specific]. Back on point, all of my comparisons will be based off of what can be done with a RAW or JPEG image OUTSIDE of any Photoshop programs- using just the standard-issue Canon Digital Photo Professional software.

I did a few test shots today, while shooting in my Canon T2i’s RAW+L mode [RAW+JPEG on some brands, I believe]. I took a few over and under exposed pictures and sat down with the laptop to see what I could make of them.

The first shot was a terribly over exposed sunflower. The kind of shot that you would get if you went from a shady spot to direct sun and forgot to adjust your exposure settings [oops!]. As you can see in the original, the pedals are washed out almost to the point that you can’t even distinguish them from the completely sunned-out background.

In the JPEG edit I was able to pull out a little color, enough that you can see the pedals without the center becoming just a black dot. Still no details and the colors are still all washed out. ->fail.

With the RAW image I clicked on my new friend ‘linear’ under the brightness and contrast sliders. A few minor adjustments and I had a detailed, well-exposed image that I actually kind of like. [side note: when you first click ‘linear’ on a picture it will usually make it super dark with a ton of contrast until you adjust the exposure area in the box above]

Next up was a dark pink rose that was really blown out.

Editing in JPEG was rendered pretty much useless. Again I got some of the color back, but that was about it.

The RAW version came through with flying colors, even grabbing the details in the dew drops on the petals and the veins on the leaves.

The next shot was a just slightly over exposed rose [think: sun just peeked out from behind a cloud]. Nothing majorly wrong, but it could use some help with color tone and some blown out highlights.

The JPEG edit didn’t turn out bad, the leaves are darker green and the rose is nice and pink. Still not very much contrast, but it’s an alright shot.

The RAW edit, however, came out wonderful. The leaves don’t have that yellow-ish hue that the JPEG image does and the flower is the nice deep pink that it should be.

On the other side of the spectrum, I took an under exposed picture of some lamb’s ear. Again, nothing majorly wrong, but it’s missing out on some highlights and the shadows are pretty dark.

Editing the JPEG brought up the highlights, but also washed out some of the nice deep green color in the mid-range.

Using the RAW image I was able to bring out more highlights and at the same time keep the darker shadows and the richness of the color and leaf detail.

My final comparison was more of an afterthought, so it is one of the pictures that I took a couple weeks ago of a corn field. It’s a picture that I already liked a lot, so I was curious as to what more I could do with it.

I edited the JPEG copy and brought out the golden tone that the fields have and got a little more shadow detail to come through, too.

The RAW version captured more of the golden hue that I was looking for, thanks to being able to adjust the white balance from the original shot. I also got a bit more shadow detail from it. The only downside to this one was that the blue sky faded a bit from the white balance adjustment.

I personally love the RAW format for what you can do with it. Almost every time I switch from RAW back to JPEG I miss some great shot that I could’ve saved with some clicking and sliding. The only real disadvantages that I see with it are time and space. It takes milliseconds longer to shoot in RAW and if you’re shooting in burst mode some lower performance cards struggle to keep up and can give you 10 seconds or so of unusable lag time after a 4-5 shot burst. You also need a bigger card for the larger RAW files [I run a 16 or 32gb all the time, so it’s not an issue no matter what mode I shoot in]. Once you are done shooting the files you are putting on your computer are larger and therefor take longer to copy [2 minutes instead of 20 seconds], and for all intents and purposes you have to convert them before you can share/upload/archive them, which takes a few minutes. Also you need more storage space on your hard drive if you are going to keep the original files. I only keep the RAW files for the pictures that I really like and think are worth keeping extra data on.

My opinion is this- If you are a purest, if you Never edit your pictures, if you delete any pictures that aren’t perfect from the beginning, or if you are really crunched for time when going through your latest batch of shots, then go on ahead and keep just shooting in JPEG mode. It’s just fine for most scenarios IF you get all your settings exact the first time. Otherwise, go for RAW. It’s more adaptable, more fixable, and overall, less prone to screw you over if you don’t have your settings exactly right when the million dollar photograph shows up in front of your lens.

So yay for RAW and yay for photographers in the 21st century who aren’t afraid to admit that we’re not perfect and who love the tools that we have available to help us capture our world just a little better.

[Edit: Since originally writing this post I have gotten a class 10 sd card to use. Even with this card I get at least 4 seconds of processing time after shooting an 8 shot burst sequence. I find that if you are at an event where you will be shooting burst mode mostly or entirely [ex: horse races] then shooting in JPEG is the way to go. There is almost no lag time with even a mid-class card and therefore I would say the benefits of immediate recovery outweigh the lack of adaptability that you come across. ]

Have you had any RAW experiences? What do YOU think of the RAW format?

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Categories: Photography, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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